Validation: a pragmatic approach
Recently the web standards debate has taken an interesting turn, with many standards advocates re-evaluating the role of validation in their daily practice. Most recently Ethan Marcotte contributed an article titled Where Our Standards Went Wrong to A List Apart. Marcotte concluded that validation is still a vital part of any web development project, but the fact that the opposite side of the argument was given serious consideration is significant.
Consider the viewpoint of Douglas Bowman, quoted in Marcotte’s article:
Validation is something I only do on my own work now.
Bowman was part of the team responsible for the 2002 redesign of Wired News using web standards and CSS. Wired News was one of the first major standards compliant sites, and helped pave the way for the web standards revolution. So for Bowman to state that validation of client websites is no longer an important consideration is quite an eye opener.
What designers like Bowman advocate is a pragmatic approach to web standards, an acknowledgment that validation is not practical in every situation. Non-compliant Content Management Systems and authoring tools, multi-developer teams and (let’s face it) poor attention to detail can all result in the production of invalid markup. When balancing the benefits of standards compliant markup against the time and cost required to overcome these obstacles, sometimes compliance is going to lose out.
I personally believe that web standards should be a cornerstone of any modern web design project. However, I also understand that given a limited timeframe and budget in which to produce a website, a certain level of compromise is sometimes inevitable, and perfectly acceptable. Consider the following common validation slip ups:
- Images missing an
- Unencoded ampersands
- Uppercase XHTML tag and attribute names
All of these oversights will result in XHTML validation warnings or errors, but presently will not impact on the way a document renders or functions in a web browser. Neither do I expect these errors will cause significant problems in future browsers – I find it hard to imagine a web browser refusing to display a page simply because it contains an empty paragraph element.
Certainly if I notice any such errors during the development of a site I fix them straight away. However if I identify the errors at a later date, or they creep into the site during a content update, then I question the importance of correcting them immediately. In the past I would have dropped whatever I was doing and rushed to squash the offensive (but invisible) validation error, almost as a matter of personal pride. Today I am more inclined to add it to my to-do list for the next occasion I’m working on the site. In the meantime I know that both my client and the site’s user base will be totally oblivious to the ‘problem’.
In this discussion it is important not to lose sight of the benefits that standards based design undoubtedly brings to our workflow. Quicker development cycles, faster loading pages, simpler site redesigns, and improved search engine visibility are just some of the gains to be had by producing semantic and standards compliant documents. But our job as web designers is not merely to produce sites that adhere to the standards of our industry. There are also technical, budgetary and timeframe requirements to be factored in. By taking a pragmatic approach to validation it is possible to meet these demands without abandoning our commitment to web standards.